At the crossroads of innovation and nutrition, MIND Foods HUB presents itself as a platform for bringing together knowledge and developing advanced solutions in the agri-food field. The effort focuses on a selection of plant species: new crop growing techniques are being studied, in traditional or urban contexts, capable of integrating attention to food quality and digital technologies.
The MIND Foods HUB project began in March 2020. Over its first two years, it developed an integrated network of infrastructures and competencies, brought together by the various research and industrial partners to form a modular and widespread hub capable of responding to the complex needs of the nutrition ecosystem.
The needs of this sector have steered activities toward the identification and development of 15 plant pilots, fifteen species of nutritional interest and added value for the development of more sustainable agronomic approaches: Savoy cabbage, radicchio, arugula, pumpkin, red rice, blueberry, mulberry, buckwheat and Siberian buckwheat, tomato, Valtellina pigmented potato, spinach and Good-King-Henry, lettuce, bean, pigmented corn. Pink lentils and chickpeas are also in development for technological applications.
The vegetable species have been identified based on their peculiarities and implementation potential. Then, they were included in a specific characterisation and validation process in the developed modular hub. Each pilot is suitable for farming in one or more environments and through the development of detailed cultivation protocols: in an open field in the case of Savoy cabbage, radicchio, pumpkin, and blueberry; under a tunnel and/or vertical farm in the case of arugula and lettuce, while the efficiency of a production system under aeroponic conditions was evaluated for spinach and Good-King-Henry.
The programme enabled the development of agronomic techniques for the quantitative and qualitative improvement and sustainable intensification of production in urban areas. An infrastructural system was set up with a self-propelled rover vector, with applications for high-throughput, non-destructive phenotyping of plant products. The rover works in the field and in the greenhouse-tunnel, which was built with a usable surface area of approximately 400 square metres in the Cascina Baciocca area (Cornaredo, Milan), where the activation of the 5G system completed the network upgrade.
Here, experts identified a solution for monitoring environmental parameters acquired through connected IoT sensors (air temperature, soil, humidity, solar radiation, etc.) and defined an interface for collecting information and the related data-lake infrastructure for storing it. The first version of FoodSAPP was then developed, a multi-device application (currently implemented on Android tablets) for the visualisation of infographics related to the status of crops, with the integration of different data sources: environmental parameters, data from lab post-processing and timeline-gallery of images, videos and 3D models to follow the growth of the crop.
A number of pilots have been initiated into planned field activities and planned analytical characterisations. Some pilots (blueberry, pigmented corn, arugula, tomato, bean, pumpkin, buckwheat and Siberian buckwheat) are currently undergoing functional validation studies, both with cellular models and on sensitive targets (e.g. elderly or obese population groups).
Other pilots are at the centre of studies for the development of business cases, including new sustainable technological processes for the processing of vegetable raw materials and the optimisation of sensory characteristics; new low environmental impact treatments for the recovery of processing by-products for human and animal consumption and other applications according to the principles of the circular economy. The selection of new plant varieties potentially adaptable to Indoor and Vertical farming (including Brassicaceae, lettuce and arugula) and innovative research into the nutraceutical value of spinach, apple and Rhodiola are also progressing. In the specific case of apples, the aim is to exploit food processing waste in a circular economy.
In addition to the pilots described above, the results of adopting the MIND Foods HUB concept in other industrial contexts have been added. In this line of research, an innovative food delivery service for the catering sector (SAFELIVERY) and a traceability platform with blockchain applications in the dairy chain are in the design stage. The pilot dedicated to applying new digital tools for communicating sustainable nutritional behaviour to consumers (smart labelling) has been activated, too.
Finally, a widespread germplasm bank is being implemented, and a web-based interactive database has already been set up to manage the available data (with 123 collected descriptors). The finalisation of the graphical interface and testing are expected in the coming months.